The Four Elements of Narrative

Theologian Wesley Kort says that narrative has a “mediating position between ordinary discourse and mystery.” Perhaps a good way to look at the process of creative cultivation that each of us had experienced in art school is in this light. Life is full of mysteries, about who we are, what we are capable of, who God is and what life is about and whether we are religious or not, we tend to seek answers to these questions through story, through recounting our experiences, and listening to and interacting with the stories of others. Traditionally, the process of addressing mystery happens when we interact with scripture. This is the medium by which we listen to and interact with God’s story. Then, as we move through life, our stories interact with this grand story. This process helps us strengthen our relationship to God through interaction and shared narrative.

Kort, in looking at the ways in which scripture functions, says that there are four basic aspects of narrative: plot, character, atmosphere and point of view. Each of these four aspects help us understand the “power and meaning” in the narrative. Plot is simply what happens in the story, the events. Character is who is involved in the story, the actors in the drama. Atmosphere is the world in which the story is set, and the boundaries in which the story takes place. Point of view has to do with whose story it is, or from what vantage point we see the story, whether that is the story of a particular community or an individual person

Each of these four elements relate to how we, as individuals and communities, understand our experiences in life. Plot reveals how we understand the way in which the process of change happens, where we are going and where we have come from. Character reveals how we understand who we are as humans: whether we are fundamentally good or bad, which choices are better or worse and whether or not we can change. Atmosphere, or the construction of the world within the narrative, reveals the possibilities or limits of human experience, where we reside in the cosmos (e.g. we are not God, neither are we animals). Point of view has to do with who the storyteller is, and what their relationship is to the narrative.

Of course every story has all four of these elements. All stories involve characters, and are told from a point of view. They all have a world in which they are set and a plot of some kind, but often one of the four will rise to the surface as the most dominant factor in generating meaning.  In looking at documentary filmmakers as artists and interpreters of reality, we can see that most likely, one of the four elements of narrative will come to the fore. For example, a primarily plot-driven documentary might organize the material based on what happened, usually setting up a character with a goal or task in front of them, and following that character through their experiences in life until they either succeed or fail at their goal. A primarily character-driven documentary might focus on each subject in the film, and attempt to get to know who they are, what their tendencies and quirks are in life, and compare them to opposing subjects. The juxtaposition of these characters illuminate something about who they are, and who we are. A primarily atmosphere-driven documentary might sit back and observe the world, minimizing the actions taken (plot) or the characters involved, and take a broader view. In so doing the filmmaker seeks to invite the audience to reflect on the nature of reality, humanity and life itself. A primarily point-of-view-driven documentary might seek to highlight who the storyteller is, perhaps speaking from behind the camera or offering thoughts and insights using voice over, and highlight the relationship between the storyteller and the other subjects or even the audience. The fact that filmmakers tend to adopt certain interpretive techniques based on an element of narrative that they (consciously or unconsciously) find compelling reveals just what sorts of questions they are interested in tackling. What I learned in the creative identity class was that all of us tended to use one or more of these elements of narrative to help us answer the big questions we had about life, our experiences and how we felt about ourselves. In looking at a documentary film, perhaps the best question to ask right away is which of the four elements of narrative are being used to tell the story. This will help you narrow down what the filmmaker is getting at, and help you engage with the film.


– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Spring of 2018 by Wipf & Stock